Mike Tomlin’s Super Bowl Return Is Proof Affirmative Action Works

Critics want the NFL to end its effort to hire more coaches of color, just as it's starting to work.

By Dexter Rogers Feb 03, 2011

Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin is out to claim his second Super Bowl title in three years as his team prepares to square off against the Green Bay Packers on Sunday. If the Steelers win, Tomlin will be the first African American to lead his team to two Super Bowls. Not bad for the 38-year-old coach nobody wanted to hire.

But Tomlin wouldn’t likely be roaming the sidelines if not for the Rooney Rule, which requires an NFL team with a head coaching vacancy to interview a candidate of color. Before the rule, few African Americans were granted interviews, let alone given head coaching jobs.

In 2002, the late Johnnie Cochran and fellow attorney Cyrus Mehri felt people of color, particularly African Americans, deserved more opportunities to lead teams. So Cochran and Mehri threatened to sue the NFL if it didn’t change its ways. "Our motives are driven not by personal desire or financial gain, but to correct what we see as a great inequity in America’s game," Cochran said at the time. "Now is the time for the NFL to step up and make a change.”

The threat of a lawsuit was enough to get the NFL’s attention. In 2003, the league emerged with the Rooney Rule. The rule is named after Steelers owner Dan Rooney, who is also the leader of the NFL’s Diversity Committee.

When longtime Steelers coach Bill Cowher resigned in 2007, the organization began its search for someone to replace one of the league’s most celebrated figures to lead one of the most storied franchises in professional sports. When Tomlin emerged with the job, many around the NFL were surprised.

Some suggested that, at 34 years old, he was too young. Others pointed to his paltry six years of NFL experience as an assistant and coordinator. Thankfully, the Steelers went with what they saw and not with what they heard.

Rooney suggested Tomlin’s interview was so impressive that it left no alternative but to hire him. Along with his excellent football IQ, Rooney felt Tomlin was simply a good man. "Mike Tomlin is first and foremost a good person," Rooney remarked. "That is the first test you have to pass."

For his part, Tomlin said of the Rooney Rule and race: "It gives people an opportunity to present themselves, their ideas and their vision. Maybe the rule itself opened the door for me…. We’ll make true advances in the process when [race is] no longer an issue."

We’re a long way from that point. In 1989, Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis hired Art Shell, making him the first African-American head coach in the modern-day NFL. By 2002, just prior to the Rooney Rule being instituted, there were still only two African American head coaches in the NFL: Herman Edwards of the New York Jets and Tony Dungy of the Indianapolis Colts. 

But when the Oakland Raiders promoted Hue Jackson from offensive coordinator to head coach two weeks ago, it brought the total number of African American head coaches in the NFL today to seven, out of 32. The league now has one Latino coach, the Carolina Panthers’ newly hired Ron Rivera. 

Moreover, when Tomlin leads his team on the field Sunday, he’ll be the fifth African-American head coach to take a team to the Super Bowl in the last five years. Clearly, the Rooney Rule has made a difference, providing African Americans, at least, big opportunities in a short time.

Which begs the question: Why are critics proclaiming the Rooney Rule should be shelved?

As we head toward this weekend’s big game, the question of whether the rule has outlived its purpose has emerged. Sports columnist Drew Sharp of the Detroit Free Press says it has. "The true measure of fairness is when diverse talent becomes an unconsciously accepted standard," Sharp wrote in his most recent critique of the rule. "This country’s most influential sports entertainment entity has reached that touchstone. And that’s why the NFL should retire the Rooney Rule."

John Ridley, the editor of That Minority Thing, suggested on NPR last week that the rule instead by phased out. "What I’d do with the Rooney Rule is I would put a clock on it," Ridley advised. "I would say in the next three years–three seasons would be about a decade–we’re going to end the Rooney Rule."

I find both Sharp’s and Ridley’s assessments ludicrous.

From Shell’s hiring in 1989 to the present, just 18 African Americans have been head coaches in the NFL; of that number, four were interim head coaches. The league’s players are 68 percent black. The Rooney Rule was plainly responsible for creating what opportunities now exist. But just as it’s starting to succeed, critics like Sharp seek to scrap it?

Sounds familiar. As soon as civil rights laws attempting to level political and economic playing fields began to work, the right eagerly declared victory on behalf of people of color and began assailing efforts like affirmative action in education as unnecessary.

American sport has a long history of moving the goal posts for athletes of color to succeed as well. 

In 1875, for instance, African-American jockeys dominated the Kentucky Derby. In the first 28 Derbies, African-American riders claimed 15 championships. Angry at such progress, whites organized the Jockey Club in 1894, which mandated that all riders be tested and licensed to ride in the Derby. Since many of the black riders were former slaves and illiterate, whites strategically thwarted African-American participation.

In the early days of boxing, white heavyweight champions like John L. Sullivan, "Gentleman" Jim Corbett and Jack Dempsey refused to fight African-Americans, thus creating an unofficial color line. Still, Jack Johnson became the first heavyweight champion of the world in 1908. Because of Johnson’s persistence, Joe Louis was able to take the sport to another level in the 1930’s and 1940’s, thereby opening doors to the likes of Muhammad Ali. A similar "gentlemen’s agreement" kept Major League Baseball a whites-only club until Jackie Robinson cracked it open. 

With this history as backdrop, for Sharp to suggest the Rooney Rule is no longer needed because an "unconsciously accepted standard" has been achieved after just eight years is ridiculous. Institutions have never changed "unconsciously." The Major Leagues’ owners didn’t let black players on the field voluntarily or out of a desire to right a wrong. Rather, it took years of steady pressure to rewrite the accepted rules.

"It’s an uphill battle [in] every hiring cycle," says Mehri of the NFL’s progress. "We’re still trying to open people’s minds. We’re in the process of changing the hearts and minds of NFL owners and, in turn, trying to open the hearts and minds of America."

The Mike Tomlins of the NFL are making a noted impact in the league, but it is unlikely we would bear witness to his stellar coaching had it not been for the Rooney Rule. Which means he and the other black coaches wouldn’t have been the only people to lose in the deal–the Steelers would be down two championships, fans would be down one heck of a strategist and the Super Bowl’s millions of young viewers would miss a chance to see a black man as a leader. 

If we ever reach a level playing field in society, it will find its way into American sport, too. Until then, leave the Rooney Rule alone.

Dexter Roger blogs about sports at Dexter’s Vantage Point! and Examiner.com. Email Dexter directly. Follow him on Twitter